Door County, Wisconsin

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Fossil technology includes coal, oil, petroleum, and natural and advanced gas combined. Each technology in electric power generation has seen and increase in jobs, but none as much as solar. The boom in the country’s solar workforce can be attributed to construction work associated with expanding generation capacity. Solar energy added 73,615 new jobs in the U.S. economy over the past year while wind added a further 24,650.

While 2016 was the warmest year on record, NASA records show that the ten warmest years since scientists began recording the Earth’s surface temperature have all occurred since 2000. For those who understand that human activity is warming our planet, there is a growing sense of urgency to make energy choices that limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

The good news is that in the last few years, America’s energy choices have increasingly favored renewables. A recent Gallup poll shows that 67% of Americans support increased investment in renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar. Yet, even with demand on the rise, many communities in Wisconsin and the energy utilities that serve them lack easy answers for providing renewable forms of energy. Energy demands, geography, environmental impacts, and economics are just a few of the considerations that go into making energy choices. There is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to addressing energy use and global warming, and many people find the problem too nebulous or unwieldy to address.

For Larry Bean, it’s the impact that climate change will have on his community that drives his decisions about energy use.

Bean, who has spent nearly fifty years immersed in environmental science and policy—first as a professor and then as a state energy administrator—is very much aware of the ways in which burning fossil fuels has driven climate change. While he was able to explore the science behind global warming as a teacher, it was his 22 years as the head of the Iowa State Energy Office that helped Bean understand how communities can control their role in climate change.

“We worked on policies and programs that reduced energy consumption of government, modeled ways that citizens could reduce their use, and advocated for the development of renewable energy technologies. The work and concern in those years was to implement mitigation efforts for climate change and to develop more sustainable energy resources,” Bean says. “So I’m very concerned about the climate.”

Bean isn’t the only one.

Over the course of 2016, Wisconsin began construction on more solar energy projects than in any other previous year. Last year we added more than 30 megawatts of new capacity—enough to supply about 5,000 Wisconsin homes with electricity for an entire year—through projects ranging from utility-based solar arrays to commercial and residential rooftop installations in Milwaukee, Madison, Racine, and the Chippewa  Valley.

Today, the American solar industry workforce is bigger than that of oil and gas workforce combined, and nearly three times the size of the entire coal mining workforce. With solar equipment costs plummetting (nearly 70% since 2010) and concern rising over another year of record-breaking heat, citizens are looking for ways to use clean energy to power their homes and businesses while protecting the health of the people, land, and waters they hold dear.

Building a resilient community

As retirees, Bean and his wife spend half of the year in the small, unincorporated town of La Pointe on Madeline Island, which is part of the Apostle Islands in Lake Superior.

About eight years ago, Bean became a catalyst for clean energy in La Pointe. Building on the community’s interest in sustainability and a shared love for the natural environment, he encouraged the town board to create an energy committee—a committee he now chairs—to increase the island community’s energy resilience and sustainability.

“The ideal would be to make municipal operations resilient to any threat [such as a major storm], says Bean. “So we’re looking at how to get to a point where the island could operate whether there’s power from the major utility company or not.”

After a series of energy audits, the Town of La Pointe made some efficiency-based changes such as switching to LED light bulbs and ensuring municipal buildings were well insulated against the island’s harsh Wisconsin winters.

After that, the energy committee comprised of six La Pointe residents pursued both wind and solar as alternative forms of energy to power the town’s municipal buildings. But because of the island’s relatively small size—fourteen miles long and three miles wide—there were few feasible sites for a wind turbine. Other considerations, such as a special dock large enough for installing and maintaining the turbine and the challenge of running transmission lines from the site to the town, made wind energy a nonstarter for the community.

So, the La Pointe energy committee turned their focus to solar. They applied for and received a $75,000 grant from the Wisconsin State Energy Office (now the Office of Energy Innovation), and the town received an additional donation of $20,000 from the local library to install a solar array on the island and also lay the groundwork for a solar microgrid.

Like a solar array, a microgrid generates energy from the sun’s rays. But while solar arrays are reliant on traditional electric transmission grids to distribute energy to customers, microgrids have control software that can sense when, say, a tree knocks down a power line, and disconnect from the grid to rely on their own solar and other distributed energy resources to keep the lights on.

The energy committee hired Chippewa Valley Alternative Energy to do a planning study, and, upon completion of the study, contracted North Wind Renewable Energy to do the installation. Today, the 18.2-kilowatt (kW) solar array, built in the center of La Pointe just minutes from the ferry line, provides enough energy to power two of the town’s municipal buildings.

“We’ve taken the first step. We have a solar array that provides about 112% of the annual electricity needed for our medical clinic and library,” says Bean. “But to be able to operate without power from Xcel Energy [the local utility provider] we would need battery backup or another way to generate power when the sun isn’t shining, so we still have a ways to go.”

Next summer the Town of La Pointe board plans to add additional solar panels to power the town hall. If the energy committee is able to keep up the momentum and funding for more solar, they hope the town will add the school, emergency services building, winter transportation building, and the materials recovery center to the proposed solar microgrid. Very soon, every municipal building in the town could be powered by sunlight.

“Madeline Island is such an excellent demonstration site for people to learn, see, and realize the impact of these kinds of initiatives,” says Bean. “The town board is unanimous in its support for our committee and our work, and the fact that this is an environmentally sound thing to do is part of that support.”

Responding to consumer demand

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 13% the electricity in the U.S. in 2015 was generated from renewable energy sources, including hydroelectric, wind, biomass (both wood and waste), solar, and geothermal. Yet few of us can directly harness wind or hydroelectric power. So we leave it to utilities to provide consumer access to renewable energy.

Advances in clean energy technology are creating new opportunities to produce energy more cheaply and efficiently from carbon-based sources such as natural gas. But, while natural gas may be cheap now, its price fluctuates according to supply and market demands. The cost of solar energy, on the other hand, continues to drop. Looking at the two energy sources side-by-side, one can see why solar is becoming increasingly attractive to energy providers.

Even though the future of the U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from American power plants 32% below 2005 levels by 2030, remains uncertain, the falling cost of renewable energy and rising consumer demand will continue to drive carbon reduction strategies. Community interest in living more sustainably, more in balance with the environment, is also pushing utility companies to offer more renewable energy options through initiatives such as community solar.

A community solar project—usually called a solar farm or solar garden—is a solar array that has multiple shareholders such as homeowners, farms, and businesses. Ownership of a solar farm, whose generated energy is shared by its members, can be community-based or led by a third-party. It’s important to note that community solar participants are not physically connected to the project, so they do not receive energy directly from the array (it’s fed into the utility grid).

In Western Wisconsin, Vernon Electric Cooperative is responding to the demands of its customers—known as member-owners in the co-op world—by building and operating the first community solar project in Wisconsin that gives people the chance to choose the source of their energy.

Joe McDonald, CEO and general manager of Vernon Electric Cooperative, has been in the co-op industry for close to thirty years. Cooperatives are organizations owned and run by members, each sharing in the profits and goods produced for their mutual benefit. The focus on members is what McDonald likes most about the co-op model.

“When I started at Vernon Electric Cooperative [in 2009], I had heard about community solar from my previous job and we had members that were interested in it. So we just kind of took the ball and went with it,” says McDonald.

In 2013 Vernon Electric Cooperative, with support from Dairyland Power Cooperative—a generation and transmission cooperative that supplies Vernon Electric with power—and  developer Clean Energy Collective LLC, broke ground on a community solar project near Westby.

“The reason we were able to build our community solar [farm] was because Dairyland Power built a 520 kW solar array on our property and then we tagged off of that and, using the same builder and contractors, were able to add [our arrays] much cheaper than we could have on our own—and substantially cheaper than an individual putting it on their own roof could,” says McDonald.

The co-op’s 305 kW solar farm, which went online in June 2014, today generates enough electricity to power thirty homes. “We sold the almost 1,000 panels [on the solar farm] in less than two weeks,” exclaims McDonald. “We’re one of the few models where we actually sell the panel. The norm has been that co-ops own the panel and simply sell the output, but our members like the idea that they can come and see and physically touch the panel. It’s part of the selling point,” McDonald says.

Another major selling point was the cost. While it can take 15 to 22 years to recoup the cost of a standard residential solar array, Vernon Electric was able to offer solar panels with a 12- to 13-year payback.

Two key factors leading to the high demand and success were the price point and flexibility that the project offered. Vernon Electric Cooperative was able to bring the cost down to less than $2 per watt by leveraging economies of scale (through Dairyland) to build the array, taking advantage of incentives for building the first community solar project in the state, and offering a $71 per-panel rebate through Vernon Electric’s Do Watt$ Right energy efficiency program.

For member-owners who don’t have the capacity to purchase solar panels, Vernon Electric Cooperative also offers an option to purchase renewable energy generated by Dairyland. This is a good fit for renters and others who might not want to make the long-term investment in solar panels.

As Vernon Electric Cooperative’s 10,500 members become increasingly interested in renewable energy sources, McDonald hopes to offer more opportunities for them to pick and choose where their energy comes from.

“We have a very [environment-oriented] group in our service area,” says McDonald, noting that, “people have relocated to our area just for that [reason].” While protecting the natural environment is a primary driver for member-owner participation in the solar farm, McDonald says that many appreciate the ability to protect against future energy rate increases and reduce the carbon footprint of their homes, farms, and businesses.

No matter what happens on the state and federal level in regard to carbon regulation and environmental policy, local communities such as the Town of La Pointe and Vernon County are leading the transition to renewable energy. And they show no sign of slowing down. These ground-up movements calling for increased energy options demonstrate how smart energy choices can protect Wisconsin communities—and the world—from climate change.

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Former Secretary of State James A Baker III said a carbon tax plan followed classic conservative principles of free-market solutions and small government. Credit: Lexey Swall/New York Times

A group of Republican elder statesmen is calling for a tax on carbon emissions to fight climate change.

The group, led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz and Henry M. Paulson Jr., a former secretary of the Treasury, says that taxing carbon pollution produced by burning fossil fuels is “a conservative climate solution” based on free-market principles.

Mr. Baker is scheduled to meet on Wednesday with White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, the senior adviser to the president, and Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, as well as Ivanka Trump.

In an interview, Mr. Baker said that the plan followed classic conservative principles of free-market solutions and small government. He suggested that even former President Ronald Reagan would have blessed the plan: “I’m not at all sure the Gipper wouldn’t have been very happy with this.” He said he had no idea how the proposal would be received by the current White House or Congress.

A carbon tax, which depends on rising prices of fossil fuels to reduce consumption, is supported in general by many Democrats, including Al Gore. Major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, have come out in favor of the concept as well.

The Baker proposal would substitute the carbon tax for the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, a complex set of rules to regulate emissions which President Trump has pledged to repeal and which is tied up in court challenges, as well as other climate regulations. At an initial price of $40 per ton of carbon dioxide produced, the tax would raise an estimated $200 billion to $300 billion a year, with the rate scheduled to rise over time.

The tax would be collected where the fossil fuels enter the economy, such as the mine, well or port; the money raised would be returned to consumers in what the group calls a “carbon dividend” amounting to an estimated $2,000 a year for the average family of four.

Former Secretary of State George P. Shultz spoke on Capitol Hill about energy, climate change and national security in 2013. Credit: Christopher Gregory/The New York Times

The plan would also incorporate what are known as “border adjustments” to increase the costs for products from other countries that do not have a similar system in place, an idea intended to address the problem of other “free-rider” nations gaining a price advantage over carbon-taxed domestic goods. The proposal would also insulate fossil fuel companies against possible lawsuits over the damage their products have caused to the environment.

Attacks on the plan can be expected from many quarters, even among supporters of a carbon tax in theory. Supporters of the Clean Power Plan are likely to oppose its repeal. Democrats also tend to oppose limitations on the right to sue like those envisioned in the Baker proposal. And the idea of a dividend will no doubt anger those in the environmental movement who would prefer to see the money raised by the tax used to promote renewable energy and other new technologies to reduce emissions.

It is also unclear how the plan will be received by the Trump administration. Stephen K. Bannon, the senior counselor to the president, has shown little interest in appeasing establishment Republicans. Breitbart News, which Mr. Bannon led before joining the Trump White House staff, has been outspoken in denying the science of climate change.

Whatever the fate of the plan, it is a notable moment because it puts influential members of the Republican establishment on the record as favoring action on climate change — a position that is publicly held by few Republicans at the national level, though many quietly say they would like to throw off the orthodoxy in the party that opposes action.

“This represents the first time Republicans put forth a concrete, market-based climate solution,” said Ted Halstead, an author of the paper and social entrepreneur whose organization, the Climate Leadership Council, is posting the memo outlining the plan. Mr. Halstead, who also founded the New America research institute, said the political left and right had stalled on climate action in part because they disagreed about the means to fixing the problem, even though they might find common ground.

Henry M. Paulson Jr., a former secretary of the Treasury, is part of a group of Republican elder statesmen calling for a tax on carbon emissions to fight climate change. Credit: Ray Stubblebine/ European Pressphoto Agency

 

Some popular environmentalists take stands that those on the right can never embrace, Mr. Halstead said, citing the works of Naomi Klein, who attacks capitalism itself as the root of climate change. “That is so at odds with the conservative worldview, of course they’re going to walk away,” he said. “The only way for this solution to come about is if it gets a start on the right.”

The other co-authors of the memo include N. Gregory Mankiw and Martin Feldstein, former chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Rob Walton, the former chairman of Wal-Mart.

survey taken just after the 2016 election by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 66 percent of registered voters supported a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies, with the money used to reduce personal taxes. The party breakdown for that support was 81 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of independents and 49 percent of Republicans. Even among Trump voters, 48 percent support taxing fossil fuel companies, according to the Yale program.

Mr. Baker said it was time for the Republican Party to engage in the discussion of global warming beyond simple denial.

“It’s really important that we Republicans have a seat at the table when people start talking about climate change,” Mr. Baker said. He said that, like many Republicans, he was skeptical that human activity was the main cause of warming, but that the stakes were too high for inaction. “I don’t accept the idea that it’s all man made,” he said, “but I do accept that the risks are sufficiently great that we need to have an insurance policy.”

As for the likelihood of success of his plan, “I have no idea what the prospects are.”

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Tia Nelson

By Tia Nelson

It was reported recently in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources had substantially edited a web page about climate change in the Great Lakes region by deleting longstanding references to climate change and its relationship to human activity.

Gone also from the page was a direct link to the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) report that included common sense ideas to make Wisconsin stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change.

The report was produced in cooperation between the highly respected UW Center for Climatic Research (CCR) and scientists at the DNR in 2011 and has set a national standard for climate impacts assessment and related strategies for adapting to a warming planet. For decades world-class researchers at CCR have carefully collected and vetted scientific data on the climate system.

And the WICCI report documented the realities of rising temperatures and heavier precipitation events, which are having negative effects on Wisconsin, its public infrastructure, people, waters, fisheries, forests and farms.

What is gained by disconnecting the public, educators, students and business owners from the best available science? How can we have an informed discussion on the appropriate public policy response to a significant challenge when government is actively suppressing the science and deleting critical information from public websites?

Who ordered and directed these edits? Most importantly, why now?

Certainly it is not because the vulnerability of the state and its people is somehow diminished by new information. Indeed, the science has only grown clearer and more compelling over time.

And what is there to gain from insinuating a debate when the reality is a broad scientific consensus?

What the DNR has done looks even more questionable after reading that spokesman Jim Dick told WKOW-TV that the agency understands scientists are no longer debating whether there is a human connection to climate change. When Dick was asked if the DNR’s statement was an acknowledgement that climate change is no longer being debated among climate scientists he replied:

“Yes, we are aware of that but as I’m sure you are aware it’s still being debated amongst the public,” wrote Dick.

So while the DNR seems content with fueling a debate that even they admit the science has already settled – let’s look at a few recognizable names that would disagree with this point-of-view:

In 1989 Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, gave an eloquent speech at her Conservative Party’s conference in Blackpool, England, about the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming. The same year, her ally in many conservative causes, the late President Ronald Reagan said this:

“Because changes in the earth’s natural systems can have tremendous economic and social effects, global climate change is becoming a critical concern.” Ronald Reagan, Jan. 9, 1989 in a letter to the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate presenting the 1990 budget.

Or former President George H. W. Bush, who signed in 1992 a climate change treaty at The Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, said this:

“Many scientists are concerned that a buildup of certain gasses in the atmosphere may cause significant climate changes with serious, widespread consequences.” – George Bush, Earth Day Proclamation 6085 of Jan. 3, 1990.

It is important to our future prosperity that we agree that science very much matters, as do facts, and that cutting off the public’s access to scientific facts is dangerous. People have the right to know that a warming planet right now and into the future carries significant risks.

Let’s also agree that openly acknowledging and actively addressing climate change is not and should not be treated as a partisan matter, which as the previous statements demonstrate is a relatively new development.

While climate change is certainly one of the greatest challenges of our time, it also presents an enormous opportunity to forge a clean energy future that protects public health, grows a prosperous economy, creates greater energy independence and protects the environment for this and future generations. A better future is within our reach.

But sound public policy must be built on sound science. And it requires an informed discussion.

Let’s conclude by saying in unison that pretending climate change isn’t real is the wrong way to govern in the public interest.

Senator John McCain said it best in 2008:

“Whether we call it ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming,’ in the end we’re all left with the same set of facts. The facts of global warming demand our urgent attention, especially in Washington. Good stewardship, prudence, and simple commonsense demand that we to act to meet the challenge, and act quickly.”

This column first appeared on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website on Jan. 6, 2017.

Tia Nelson is Managing Director, Climate, of the Outrider Foundation, a Madison-based, not-for-profit globally focused on climate change and nuclear policy and non-proliferation. Tia is a longtime Wisconsin environmental leader and former executive secretary of Wisconsin’s Board of Commissioners of Public Lands. She was co-chair of Governor Doyle’s Global Warming Task Force (2007-8). Tia has been a regular participant in the Annual Door County Climate Change Forum held each May in Sturgeon Bay and has assisted with a class at The Clearing this month.

The Climate Corner is a monthly column featuring a variety of writers from around the state and Door County addressing various aspects of the challenges and opportunities climate change presents. The column is sponsored by the Climate Change Coalition of Door County, which is dedicated to “helping to keep our planet a cool place to live.” The Coalition is always open to new members and ideas. Contact the Coalition at climatechange.doorcounty@gmail.com.

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Solar panels at the Milwaukee Zoo

 

Wisconsin has stood out nationwide for state officials’ hostility toward solar and other renewable energy sources, as codified in decisions by the Public Service Commission as well as moves by Gov. Scott Walker and state legislators. But there are also numerous bright spots in Wisconsin’s clean energy landscape, including leadership by rural electric cooperatives in renewable development. 

Wisconsin’s renewable energy markets and the larger benefits of renewable energy are among the topics to be explored at a day-long clean energy summit hosted by RENEW Wisconsin on Thursday in Madison. 

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Adam Browning of Vote Solar

Midwest Energy News talked with one of the summit’s keynote speakers, Adam Browning, in advance. Browning is executive director and co-founder of the advocacy group Vote Solar, which aims to make solar power mainstream nationwide. He previously ran a pollution prevention program at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and also served in the Peace Corps in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa, which along with his Miami upbringing “taught him about the power of the sun,” as his bio says. 

Midwest Energy News: Are you optimistic about the future of solar development in the United States — will it become ‘mainstream’ any time soon? 

Browning: I feel very optimistic about the future of solar for a couple reasons. Poll after poll shows a super-majority of Americans of all political persuasions really want to see more renewables, and solar in particular.  If you’ll forgive the pun, solar polls through the roof. Secondly, the costs are getting better and better. Around the country we’re seeing wholesale solar prices that beat that of building new coal or natural gas or nuclear plants. In sunnier parts of the country, we regularly see long-term contracts under 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, fixed for 20 or 25 years. The gravitational pull of low prices is inexorable. Those are the twin pillars of solar — the popularity and the dropping cost. 

You mention how solar can increasingly compete with other forms of utility-scale generation, but how about residential solar? Is that becoming financially accessible to big parts of the population too? 

Both [utility-scale and residential solar] are a function of scale. Back in 2002 [when Vote Solar was founded], solar was really expensive. But we had good analysis that the more you deployed, the more capital you invested, the more entrepreneurship you attracted, the lower costs would become. And that’s exactly what has happened. 

In the early days we focused on incentives, incentives with a purpose and goal in mind. Developing the local jobs and infrastructure, a local market that is sustainable. If you’re able to do that, right now the majority of the cost of a solar system isn’t in the hardware, it’s in customer acquisitions and all the other business expenses that surrounds having a [solar] business. The larger and more efficient your market, the lower the per-unit cost for customers.

What might the Trump administration mean for solar, including the fact that the Clean Power Plan could be killed?

A really important point here is that the most important decisions around electricity are made at the state level, not the federal level. This allows states to take leadership about where they want to go. The history of solar to date has been about state-level leadership. 

The biggest issue is that last year the solar industry negotiated a deal around the federal Investment Tax Credit with a five-year smooth ramp-down in exchange for permanent lifting of the oil export ban. This year it’s widely expected there will be comprehensive tax reform. The question is will that deal that was struck last year continue to be honored? If you abruptly pull the plug on the business environment that was negotiated, that’s disruptive. 

On the state level as you mentioned, what is the outlook in Wisconsin for solar and other forms of renewables?

There are some real bright spots. The rural electric cooperatives are not regulated by the Public Service Commission. They’re not answerable to political appointees, they’re answerable to their member-owners. You’ve seen real leadership. Richland Electric, Vernon Electric Cooperative have done really interesting community solar programs that allow individual member owners to make individual investments and see real economic benefits of investing in renewables. 

With a lot of the controversy going on around utilities adding fixed fees to their customers who want to generate solar, I would point out that Wisconsin’s average retail electricity prices are around 13-14 cents per kilowatt-hour, and in Hawaii, we just saw this week a deal for solar plus storage being offered at 11 cents per kilowatt-hour. If utilities are trying to force structural changes to make solar uneconomic, the time is not that far off when customers will have another option, cutting the cord completely, in the way that cell phones made what Ma Bell was offering with landlines irrelevant. 

Technology will find a way. If customers want solar, a business model based on denying customers what they want isn’t a very smart business model. Given the mass of benefits that solar provides, given the low costs, given the fact it doesn’t pollute, and the fact it’s not using coal mines and natural gas … the totality of those benefits will be seen as an opportunity and a path forward where everybody wins.

You are based in California, a leader on solar policy and deployment. Even though the politics and climate are very different, does California hold lessons for Wisconsin? 

First let me emphasize that there are examples of real national leadership right in Wisconsin. What the rural electric cooperatives are doing right now with community solar is setting a national example. I wish we had programs like that in California. 

That said, there’s a lot of interesting stuff happening around the country. There’s a lot [Wisconsin] could do to increase its investor-owned utilities’ investment in wholesale solar, and to create a path for rooftop solar. Financing could be improved, the cloudiness around the ability to do solar leasing should be fixed. In a place like California, in the past year about 10 percent of the state’s power came from solar, and a good third of that came from rooftop solar. By 2030, California will be well over 30 percent solar-powered. California is showing it is definitely possible to do. 

The Green Tea Coalition has voiced Republican support for solar in Wisconsin and other places. In light of all the national attention on political polarization and the disenfranchisement of many rural and conservative people, is solar something that can bring people together? 

Frankly solar is an issue that has probably the most overlap between Trump and Clinton supporters. Pew did polling around the time of the election that showed about 90 percent support [on different questions related to solar]. If there’s anything that could be a uniting factor in our divided country, solar would make sense.

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Iberdrola Renewables built these wind turbines as part of the Blue Creek Wind Farm in Van Wert, Ohio. Gov. Kasich’s veto of a bill delaying state mandates on renewable energy is only the first step toward developing more wind farms. The legislature two years ago changed property setback standards that the industry says has made building new wind farms impossible. (Karen Schiely)

By John Funk, The Plain Dealer 

Gov. John Kasich today jumped into the breach between conservative lawmakers and green industries and their environmental allies with a veto of legislation that would have made state renewable and efficiency standards voluntary for the next two years.

The veto of House Bill 554 means Ohio’s traditional utilities as well as any other power company selling electricity here must supply an annually increasing percentage of power generated by wind, solar and other renewable technologies until that percentage is 12.5 percent in 2027.

The standard has been frozen at 2.5 percent since 2014 while lawmakers studied the issue. The veto means the standard grows by 1 percent  to 3.5 percent in 2017 and then annually by 1 percent for several years until it reaches 12.5 percent in 2027.

To comply with the standards, power companies can build their own wind and solar installations or contract to buy the green power from independent companies that build them. Most power companies have bought the power.

Lawmakers in 2008 put the mandates in place — in a near unanimous vote of approval — in order to jump-start the renewable energy industry, which then grew as expected until bitter legislative debates in 2013 and the 2014 freeze.

Kasich had repeatedly pledged during his presidential bid that Ohio would support wind and solar, that he would not allow more conservative lawmakers to extend the two-year freeze, and that making the standards voluntary was unacceptable.

In his message to lawmakers accompanying the veto, Kasich wrote that HB 554, as it was passed, ran the risk of eliminating the “energy generation options . . . most prized by the companies poised to create many jobs in Ohio in the coming years, such as high technology firms.” He was referring to companies such as Amazon and Google.

Kasich was also critical of the impact the legislation would have had on businesses that work in the broad energy efficiency markets, whose technologies, he said, have helped Ohio businesses and consumers save more than $1 billion.

The veto also means FirstEnergy, American Electric Power and the other traditional utilities must offer customers energy-efficiency programs in order to meet   increasingly stringent standards to help them reduce power consumption by using new technologies. AEP never shut down its programs; FirstEnergy did. The Akron-based company is still negotiating with regulators about a new efficiency program but expects approval next month.

“FirstEnergy supported sensible modifications to Ohio’s energy efficiency mandates out of concern for the rising compliance costs that were being passed on to our customers,” said Todd Schneider, spokesman. The program will meet or exceed the standards, he added.

Schneider said the company has been neutral about whether the renewable mandates should be goals or mandates.

The efficiency standards require that by 2027, utilities reduce peak demand by 22 percent compared with the highest demand in 2009. The standards increase 1 percent annually until 2020 and then by 2 percent annually through 2027.

The state’s largest industries were able to win the right to opt out of the efficiency programs two years ago by arguing that they were more expert at efficiency than the utilities. Large commercial customers would have been permitted to leave efficiency programs under the vetoed bill.

As expected, reaction from a coalition of environmental groups was positive if not enthusiastic.

“Governor Kasich’s veto sends the signal that Ohio is back in the clean energy game, and ready to deliver good jobs and a healthy environment to businesses and families,” said Samantha Williams, Staff Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“While the lawmakers who fast-tracked this legislation seem determined to freeze Ohio in the past, the administration wisely sees that embracing the clean energy shift that is already under way can only help the state move forward. Jobs and investment are coming to the region–the governor is right to steer them to Ohio.”

Reaction was also positive from a coalition of businesses that had opposed extending the freeze.

A group of seven companies, including Nestle, Whirlpool, GAP and energy bar maker Cliff Bar with operations in Ohio had written to Kasich urging him to veto the bill.

The governor “has sent a clear market signal that clean energy jobs, investment and innovation are welcome in Ohio, the seven said in a joint statement issued by CERES, a non-profit national clean energy group that served as a spokesman for the group.

The governor also won praise from one group that has worked hard but only occasionally in public for renewables and efficiency.

The Ohio Conservative Energy Forum, a Republican organization supported by Christian groups and led by Kasich ally Mike Hartley, saw the veto has a step toward a more comprehensive energy debate in 2017.

“Next year provides a real opportunity for Ohio to address its energy portfolio in a way that will support economic development, the co-existence of renewable and traditional energies — and benefit rate payers,” said Hartley in an interview following the veto.

The thorough debate that Hartley envisions would occur as American Electric Power and FirstEnergy push lawmakers to “re-structure” the industry or, more bluntly, return to some sort of regulation guaranteeing that customers subsidize their aging coal-fired power plants that cannot compete with gas-fired plants now dominating wholesale markets.

Reaction from Sen. William Seitz, a Cincinnati Republican and the driving force behind legislative efforts since 2013 to modify or scrap the state’s  energy and efficiency mandates was quick and somewhat bitter.

“It is apparent that Gov. Kasich cares more about appeasing his coastal elite friends in the renewable energy business than he does about the millions of Ohioans who decisively rejected this ideology when they voted for President-elect Trump,” he wrote in an email immediately after the release of the veto.

While praising Trump and his “amazing Cabinet of free market capitalists,” Seitz vowed to make another effort in the coming year to get rid of the standards.

“We will do our part by launching a full-scale effort next session to totally repeal these [former Gov. Ted] Strickland-era mandates. With veto-proof majorities next session, we are optimistic of success.

Seitz’s position implied that the lawmakers will not convene an emergency session this week to override the veto.  But John Fortney, spokesman for the Senate’s GOP leadership, said a special session on Thursday had not been ruled out.

House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger will decide on Wednesday whether to call a special Thursday session, said Brad Miller, House spokesman.

Rosenberger did issue a statement, leaving no doubt that 2017 will be an energy debate year, though maybe not what Mike Hartley of the Conservative Energy Forum had in mind.

“I am disappointed that Governor Kasich has expressed disagreement with the majority of his Republican colleagues in the legislature. Through today’s actions, it is clear that serious differences of opinion exist between the House and the administration on issues such as energy policy and taxation. Make no mistake, many of these policies will continue to be priorities among our caucus as we head into the next General Assembly, and I look forward to working with the administration on those issues.”

Ohio Consumers’ Counsel Bruce Weston had testified against some aspects of the bill and had written directly to Kasich in an effort to help persuade him to veto the bill if it could not be modified.

Weston’s concerns are more consumer-orientated than environmentally focused.  He has testified before lawmakers that the utilities had found ways to substantially increase profits by offering energy efficiency programs. HB 554 would have added to their profits at the expense of consumers, he told lawmakers.

“The Governor’s veto will help protect Ohioans’ electric bills,” Weston said in a statement after the veto. “I look forward to working with legislators in the future toward maximizing consumer benefits from energy efficiency, while limiting the costs and profits that utilities’ charge consumers for energy efficiency programs. Our goal is to reduce what Ohioans pay for electricity.”

FirstSolar, the state’s only solar panel manufacturer, praised Kasich for the veto.

“As a major employer in northwest Ohio and a center of solar technology innovation, we commend Governor John Kasich for his veto of HB 554,” said Mike Koralewski, Sr. Vice President of Global Manufacturing at First Solar. “Our Perrysburg facility is the largest solar photo-voltaic (PV) module manufacturing site in the United States.

“The work we do here enables our company to deliver an economically attractive alternative to fossil fuels for large-scale power generation.

“Governor Kasich’s decision will help ensure that Ohio can leverage increasingly competitive, locally manufactured utility-scale solar projects that customers large and small demand in greater numbers every year.”

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Huge, destructive fires are more common with climate change, and the loss of regeneration threatens to exacerbate global warming.
BY BOB BERWYN, INSIDECLIMATE NEWS

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Climate change is making fires like the Sand Fire that decimated tens of thousands of acres in Southern California earlier this year more common and are leaving forests ill-equipped to grow back. Credit: Getty Images

There are warning signs that some forests in the western U.S. may have a hard time recovering from the large and intense wildfires that have become more common as the climate warms.

After studying 14 burned areas across 10 national forests in California, scientists from UC Davis and the U.S. Forest Service said recent fires have killed so many mature, seed-producing trees across such large areas that the forests can’t re-seed themselves. And because of increasingly warm temperatures, burned areas are quickly overgrown by shrubs, which can prevent trees from taking root.

“With high-severity fires, the seed source drops off,” said study co-author Kevin Lynch, a forest researcher at UC Davis. “We aren’t seeing the conditions that are likely to promote natural regeneration.”

Historically, severe fires were uncommon in the forests covered by the study, largely made up of yellow pines and mixed conifers, but extended drought and heatwaves have exacerbated fire conditions across the West. The changing climate is also seen as a factor in recent wildfires in the Southeast, which is also mired in drought.

For the study, published Wednesday in the journal Ecosphere, the researchers surveyed 1,500 plots in burned areas at different elevations in the Sierra Nevadas, Klamath Mountains, and North Coast regions. There was no natural conifer regeneration at all in 43 percent of the plots, they reported.

“[O]ur data support growing concern that the well-documented trend toward larger and more severe fires is a major threat to conifer forest sustainability in our study region,” the authors wrote. They said the study results could apply to mixed conifer forests across the West.

Welch said the study was aimed at helping forest managers decide where to apply limited funding to replant forests that aren’t regrowing on their own. 

“There aren’t enough of the right kind of trees growing back, the sugar pines and the ponderosa pines,” he said, describing the native species that are ecologically and commercially valuable.

Firs and cedars dominated in the study plots where there was regeneration, but those trees  are much less resistant to future fires. Decades of logging of old fire-resistant trees and fire suppression shifted the composition of the forests, making them more dense. Add in the drying and warming climate, and it’s a recipe for intense fires.

“Pretty much everyone agrees that’s the climate change signal,” he said.

That meshes with findings in other recent studies, said Ellis Margolis and Collin Haffey, U.S. Geological Survey forest scientists in New Mexico who were not involved in the new study.

“The story from recent fires is that, due to a warming and drying climate, combined with increased fuels from a century of fire exclusion, high-severity burn patches in dry conifer forests have been increasing in size,” they said in an email response. “Importantly, some of these large, severe burn patches have no surviving trees within them.”

Some areas are being scorched repeatedly because wildfires are also becoming more frequent. Those re-burns have killed off even more of the mature seed trees.

“The loss of seed sources and increasing moisture stress after fires, both related to climate change, does not bode well for the future of large areas of dry conifer forests,” they said.

A wide-ranging 2015 study by other federal researchers suggested that entire forests could succumb to mega-disturbances like fire and insect outbreaks, and that climate change is already driving the transition of forests to shrub and grasslands in drier parts of the U.S. like the Southwest.

The new study offers some clues about short-term forest response, but regeneration after big fires can be a centuries-long process, according to Park Williams, a forest researcher with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

“Prior to the modern era, fires in this region seemed to typically be low-intensity,” he said. “In the more intense fires that we’ve been seeing recently, the patches killed by the fire are tending to be far larger and it could take a very long time for the native tree species to repopulate these areas. With climate getting warmer in the coming centuries, it seems more likely that many large burned forest areas in the Southwest U.S. will be recolonized by shrub species that can reproduce quickly and tolerate heat and drought.”

Alistair Jump, a forest ecologist in the U.K. who has studied forests on three continents, said recent forest die-offs around the world should be seen as part of a global forest crisis. The massive changes aren’t just a symptom of climate change—they could drive changes in the global carbon cycle that would speed the buildup of heat-trapping pollution.

“Mortality events might be perceived as local. Even on a vast scale they are easy to dismiss as the problem of another state or country,” he said. “However, the drivers of such events are substantially global (changing climate and its interaction with pests and disease) and many of their impacts are global. Consequently, we need a coordinated global approach to address the problem.

“There’s a band of very dedicated people working on this issue across the globe but with staggeringly little recognition of the seriousness of the problem from most of our political leaders. In short, we risk a very significant exacerbation of our environmental problems at a global scale if we continue to overlook large scale mortality across the world’s forests.”

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Joshua Emerson Smith BY: Joshua Emerson Smith Contact Reporter 

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Kashmiri fishermen in India use their nets to catch fish in the waters of the Anchor Lake on a cold day in Srinagar on Dec. 20, 2016. (Danish Ismail/ Reuters)

Village anglers to commercial fleets could see a combined annual loss of more than 7 million tons of fish by the end of this century if global warming continues unabated, according to a report published Thursday in the journal Science.

The study is the latest in a growing body of work that seeks to quantify the economic and health risks associated with climate change.

In their new report, the authors said world leaders can avoid massive disruption of the the planet’s fisheries by limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — the target called for in the Paris accord on climate change that was formulated last year.

“Moving forward is actually persuading the countries and even the private sector to achieve” that goal, said William Cheung, the study’s lead author and a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies fisheries management.

The authors project that for every Celsius degree of warming Earth experiences, fish catches could drop by more than 3 million metric tons a year. Around the world, the amount of fish caught per year currently totals about 109 million tons.

In 2015, the planet was on average 1 degree Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels — the first time it reached that milestone, according to NASA.

The forecasted impacts of global warming won’t be felt evenly, climate experts have said.

As the planet warms, fish will migrate to cooler habitats. Places where people have the least ability to adapt to these shifts will be affected the most, scientists said.

For example, the new report found that fishing communities in the South Pacific could see as much as a 40 percent decrease in fish catches by the turn of the century.

“Regionally, we’ll also see these winners and losers,” Cheung said. “If you look at the salmon fisheries off the coast of California, we know some of the stocks are doing really badly with particularly warmer temperatures. For fishermen up in Alaska, the salmon runs are going much stronger.”

Climate change also could expand fishing territory in the Arctic if there’s dramatic melting of the sea ice there, and Cheung said this in turn could create conflicts if commercial fleets increasingly move into the region and raise competition with local subsistence anglers.

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